History and Traditions

Academic Regalia

Much of the regalia in today's ceremony originated in medieval European universities such as Oxford. Since most of the professors in that age were church clergy people, they wore heavy, rather austere, long robes with hoods. This manner of dress not only reflected their vows of poverty, but also kept them warm in the drafty university halls of the period. As time passed, these hooded robes evolved into elaborate vestments that more closely resembled the colorful, symbolic fashions of the royal courts. These vestments were often made of colored silks with heavy embroidery. Different styles of hoods (which were now entirely symbolic and no longer designed to cover the head), mortars (a stylized cap popular at the time) and cassock-like gowns displayed the loyalties, disciplines and levels of achievement of the wearer.

As early as the 1700s, academic costumes found their way to America at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University (then King's College), and perhaps at a few other colleges founded in colonial times. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Gardner Cotrell Leonard, of Albany, New York, undertook the stabilization of the costume's symbolism after his family's firm designed special regalia for Williams College in western Massachusetts. The American Council on Education has updated the academic costume code three times since then, most recently in 1986. For all colleges and universities that adhere to the Intercollegiate Code, the general descriptions are the same, although certain institutions have made slight modifications when permissible.

The color of the gown is commonly black with no trim for the bachelor's or the master's degree. The doctor's gown is faced down the front with velvet, with three bars of the same across the sleeves, and may be worn open or closed. Rarely the trim of the doctor's gown can conform to the color code for the edgings of hoods and the tassels of caps. Ordinarily, the velvet is either black or dark blue, since the most common degree title is doctor of philosophy. The color code is the same for all degrees, although the binding or edging of the hood varies in width: two inches, three inches and five inches for the bachelor's, master's and doctor's degrees, respectively. Similarly, the hoods vary in length. For example, golden-yellow velvet-five inches in width, bound to a black 36-inch hood with panels on each side and lined with satin colors-displays a Ph.D. degree in a field of science, with the satin lining indicating the colors of the particular college or university that awarded the degree.

The bachelor's degree has pointed sleeves and the gown hangs closed. The hood is optional, although if worn it should conform strictly to the color and design code. The master's degree is indicated by an oblong sleeve, open at the wrist, with the base hanging and square-cut. The gown may be worn open or closed, according to design; the hood is 30 inches, without side panels, and is bound with three-inch velvet.

Tassels for caps may be black or may conform to the color code, except that gold is most often worn for the doctor's degree. Members of the governing body of a college or university-and they only, whatever degrees they hold-are entitled to wear doctor's gowns, but their hoods may be only those of degrees actually held by the wearers or especially designed by the institution. The chief officer and the chief marshal may wear specifically designed costumes as approved by the institution.


  • Gold cords represent Academic Honors, for students with a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher.


  • Blue Violet - Architecture
  • Brown - Master of Fine Arts
  • Crimson - Master of Science
  • Drab - Master of Business Administration or Accounting
  • Garnet- Law
  • Gold - Master of Science Light Blue - Master of Education
  • Ivory- Medicine
  • Light Blue - Education
  • Purple – Juris Doctorate in Law
  • White- Arts and Letters


The Mace is carried by the oldest Emeriti faculty member of the college who leads the platform party procession at Commencement and other formal academic occasions.


The traditional graduation dress of cap and gown started in the 13th and 14th centuries when universities began forming throughout Europe. The graduation cap and gown date back to England. In the late 1800s, colors were assigned to signify certain areas of study. At both the high school and college level, students wear a traditional long gown and cap in their school colors (or just black). In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges and prescribed wearing a long gown." It wasn't until the late 1800s that schools began introducing different colors of gowns. The cap dates back to the 14th century as a way to signify superiority and intelligence.


Master’s and doctoral graduates are given symbolic hoods that originate back to the Celts. Within the Celtic groups, only the Druid priests wore capes with hoods to symbolize their superior intelligence. The hood is presented during the baccalaureate ceremony and was originally worn as a head covering in the cold schools of the Middle Ages. Today the velvet color on the outer edge of the hood denotes the graduate’s degree -white for arts and letters, gold for science and brown for fine arts.


At most high schools and universities, the tassels are first worn on the right and then flipped to the left upon receiving the diploma or degree to signify moving on from one stage of life to the next. Most graduates flip the tassel after the receipt of the degree; others may flip the tassel before walking off of the stage. This varies by school. At East Los Angeles College, tassels are placed to the right first, and after graduation ceremony are placed to the left. Tassels are normally black. Gold tassels denote a doctoral degree.


The first diplomas were made from paper-thin sheepskin, handwritten with ink, rolled and tied with a ribbon. This tradition continued until 100 years ago when the diplomas began to be printed on parchment.


The first class ring was made in 1835 for West Point U.S. Academy. The rings started off very plain but soon became more complex with stones and intricate dyes that were added. The Egyptians started this idea; they felt that their rings promised them eternal life, according to the Net Glimpse Web site. Today rings are worn to show pride and a sense of accomplishment.


“Pomp and Circumstance” is the traditional graduation march. It was composed by Sir Edward Elgar and first performed on Oct. 19, 1901 in Liverpool, England. Although not every commencement uses this song, it was passed down to America from English institutions.


We're all very aware of what most call "the graduation song." The song was written in 1901 by Sir Edward Elgar. It's known as the Pom and Circumstance and first played at a graduation ceremony in 1905 at Yale. Other schools quickly picked it up and it spread throughout the United States. In a matter of no time, the song was being played at nearly every school for graduation. Today, it is still widely used at graduations and other ceremonies.


Many schools and various stationary companies offer students the opportunity to buy fancy invitations that the student then sends out to family and friends, inviting them formally to the graduation. Sadly, this is all just rooted in the gift-giving tradition. Good etiquette basically states that if you receive a formal invitation to an event, you should probably give the host or celebrated individual a gift.


This tradition is all thanks to the Naval Academy. CNY News explains, "Prior to the graduation of 1912, graduates of the academy were required to serve two years in the fleet as midshipmen before being commissioned as Navy officers, therefore they still needed their hats. The class of 1912 was commissioned from the time of graduation and received their officer’s hats, thus their hats were no longer needed, leaving the graduates free to toss their caps into the air and not worry about getting them back. The tradition then caught on at other institutions throughout the country. Now the action is regarded as a symbolic gesture of the end of a chapter in a graduate's life."